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Jean Arthur: Nervous Wreck on Set Exuded Charm + Warmth on Screen

14 minutes read

Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur movies

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

“A 17-film tribute to the quintessential comedic leading lady.”

That’s how Turner Classic Movies describes its January ’07 homage to Jean Arthur, Columbia’s reigning queen from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s – and one of my all-time favorite performers.

Jean ArthurPathologically shy and quite difficult off-screen, Jean Arthur exuded great charm, warmth, and genuine feeling on-screen – qualities as rare then as they are now. Perhaps it’s true that she vomited each time before she had to appear in front of a camera, but you could never tell by looking at her in classics such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and A Foreign Affair.

Along with Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, and Irene Dunne, Arthur was one of the top light comediennes of the studio era. (Myrna Loy was always a pleasure to watch, but she wasn’t really funny; Katharine Hepburn could be funny, though in her relatively few comedies of the ’30s and ’40s she often displayed a metallic quality that made her lightheartedness feel quite heavy indeed.)

Arthur’s comedy characters, however, were more complex than those played by the other stars of the period. As author John Oller explains in Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, “in both comedy and drama, she projected an unusual mix of toughness and vulnerability, of skepticism and idealism, of confidence and fear. The Arthur heroine’s pluckiness is almost always accompanied by a nagging sense of anxiety and bewilderment. Comparing her to another famous Jean, author James Harvey has aptly observed that ‘if Harlow is the tough girl who doesn’t know what it is to be nervous, Arthur is the tough girl who does.'”

As a teenager watching Jean Arthur’s mostly black-and-white movies on television decades after her film career was over, I became fascinated by this most unlikely of Hollywood stars. Arthur wasn’t beautiful, glamorous, sexy, or exotic. Her professional women – reporters, secretaries, salesgirls with names like Mary Smith, Mary Jones, and Molly Truesdale – didn’t project a larger-than-life screen persona. To this cynical romantic – her characters and myself have that paradox in common – Arthur’s allure lay in her deceptive “averageness.” She looked like a blonde, sparkling-toothed version of millions of women everywhere, while displaying an unusual mix of resilience, intelligence, and compassion the likes of which are hardly ever found either in life or on screen. Those qualities also help to explain why Arthur, despite (or perhaps because of) her obvious vulnerability, almost always came across as stronger, more mature, and more interesting than her leading men.

Now, a distinction should be made between two radically different Jean Arthurs.

Jean ArthurDuring the 1920s, those days when movies didn’t have a voice, Arthur was nothing more than an insipid brunette ingénue who was rapidly demoted to insipid brunette nothingness in grade Z Westerns in which the heroes’ horses had better roles and more screen time than she did. Near the end of the decade, apparently thanks to her intimate relationship with David O. Selznick, she was promoted back to ingénue roles, or to parts in which she was the girl who lost the boy to the star.

The advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s did little to enhance her uncharismatic screen presence in spite of a delightfully grating (gratingly delightful?) squeaky voice which she herself once described as a “foghorn.”

Film historian Anthony Slide once told me that while watching the campy 1929 slice of exotica The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, he couldn’t tell the difference between the “normal” Jean Arthur and the hypnotized Jean Arthur – a victim of the malefic Dr. Fu’s powers – for the actress looked and sounded as if she was in a trance throughout the whole film. (Having seen both The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu and its follow-up, The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, I have to concur.)

Jean ArthurCuriously, after leaving Hollywood for Broadway in the early ’30s, Arthur underwent a dramatic makeover. When she took another stab at film acting a couple of years later, she had not only turned into a full-fledged blonde but she had also – as if by magic – developed the required technique for “effortless” film acting. Whether the result of solid stage training or of the hypnotic powers of some Broadway Dr. Fu, the new Jean Arthur returned to Hollywood in possession of a seemingly self-confident style that allowed the actress to use her eyes, mannerisms, and foghorn to best advantage.

Both Jean Arthurs can be seen, examined, and compared to one another in the TCM film series.

In fact, the best thing about TCM’s Jean Arthur tribute – apart from the fact that it is taking place – is that TCM hasn’t relied solely on Arthur’s handful of films made for, or distributed by, MGM and RKO (e.g., Public Hero #1, The Devil and Miss Jones, A Lady Takes a Chance).

Instead, even though TCM will show a few of the films found in the Time Warner library (The Silver Horde, Danger Lights, the aforementioned Public Hero #1), its tribute will focus on Arthur’s work at Columbia, including several rarities such as If You Could Only Cook, Adventure in Manhattan, Party Wire, and The Impatient Years. (A minor complaint: As far as I know, TCM has never shown the 1933 RKO crime melodrama The Past of Mary Holmes, in which Arthur has a supporting role. To the best of my knowledge, that film still exists.)

Jean Arthur, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The tribute, being held every Tuesday evening, started this past Jan. 2 with Howard Hawks’ macho Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra’s Americorna tales You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (above, with James Stewart), and John Ford’s all-but-forgotten little gem The Whole Town’s Talking. (If I were to pick between the revered Stagecoach and the funny, unpretentious The Whole Town’s Talking, the latter would definitely be my choice.)

I’m not a fan of Only Angels Have Wings, a contrived adventure melodrama set among air couriers in South America, in which Arthur manages to hold her own opposite a badly miscast Cary Grant (who talks tough, but looks like he’d rather be taking a foam bath in a Park Avenue bathtub), a sultry Rita Hayworth (who would replace Arthur as Columbia’s top star in the mid-1940s), and comeback kid Richard Barthelmess (who steals the movie).

Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore in You Can't Take It with YouBut I actually do like both You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington despite Frank Capra’s overbearingly idealistic mindset and the presence of James Stewart as Arthur’s romantic interest. Stewart – seemingly most everyone’s idea of the perfect all-American Average Man – is my idea of the perfectly phony All-Hollywood Actor. (In the photo, Stewart hugs Arthur while Lionel Barrymore plays the harmonica in the madcap You Can’t Take It with You.)

Jean Arthur, however, shines in both Capra films (even though her role in Mr. Smith is subordinate to Stewart’s), and in The Whole Town’s Talking, in which she initially feels superior to and then falls for her third most unlikely romantic partner: frog-faced Edward G. Robinson.

I say that Robinson – hilarious in two roles, that of a tough criminal and his mild-mannered look-alike – was Arthur’s “third most unlikely” leading man because as far as I’m concerned, the Arthur-Stewart (mis)match remains the most absurd, followed by her pairing with a wooden John Wayne in the 1943 comedy A Lady Takes a Chance. Robinson may not have been the greatest-looking guy in the world, but he may well have been the greatest American film actor ever.

Next Tuesday, Jan. 9, TCM will show Jean Arthur’s three films with the underappreciated Joel McCrea, who could do quite well in drama and who was a first-rate light comedian.

The three films are the tedious 1930 melodrama The Silver Horde, in which a pre-stardom Arthur – still a brunette – plays second banana to star Evelyn Brent; Adventure in Manhattan, a rarely screened 1936 comedy-thriller directed by Edward Ludwig; and George Stevens’ 1943 romantic comedy The More the Merrier (co-written by Arthur’s then husband, Frank Ross).

Arthur won her sole Academy Award nomination for her performance in the Stevens film set in overcrowded wartime Washington, where she shares a small apartment with McCrea and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Charles Coburn at his most avuncular. (Personally, I find Arthur’s performance in Stevens’ 1942 comedy-drama The Talk of the Town to be her finest.)

On Jan. 16, TCM will show four Jean Arthur comedies: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, in which she plays opposite master light comedian William Powell; the little-seen If You Could Only Cook, a moderately entertaining comedy that pairs an excellent Arthur with classy Herbert Marshall; More Than a Secretary (right), a screwball comedy with the usually dead-on-arrival George Brent (the fact that it’s directed by the deft Alfred E. Green, however, is a plus); and the 1940 bigamy comedy Too Many Husbands.

A less effective take on the My Favorite Wife theme – spouse is dead; get new spouse; old spouse is not dead after all; why does life have to be so complicated? – Too Many Husbands is another little-seen Arthur vehicle. In the film, she marries both the invariably delightful Melvyn Douglas and the (almost) invariably dull Fred MacMurray.

On Jan. 23, there will be four Arthur dramas: The minor 1930 melo Danger Lights, with a pre-stardom Arthur doing what myriad other starlets of the period could have done equally well (or equally poorly); Public Hero #1, opposite tough guy Chester Morris and Lionel Barrymore; and the super-rare 1935 drama Party Wire, an attack on small-town narrow-mindedness starring stone-faced Victor Jory as, according to the TCM synopsis, “the most eligible bachelor in town” (what kinda town that would be, I don’t know).

On Jan. 30, there will be another rarity: Irving Cummings’ 1944 romantic comedy-drama The Impatient Years, from a screenplay by the not completely unreliable Virginia Van Upp (best known for producing Gilda), which has Arthur and the now just about totally forgotten Lee Bowman trying to rekindle their feelings for one another.

That same evening, two Arthur Westerns: Arizona, an expensive 1940 production directed by Wesley Ruggles, and co-starring a very young William Holden and a very middle-aged Warren William; and Shane, George Stevens’ elegiac mix of romanticism and realism in the Old American West.

Jean Arthur, Alan Ladd in ShaneWritten by A. B. Guthrie Jr., from a novel by Jack Schaefer, Shane stars Alan Ladd as a gunslinger trying to escape his violent past. Needless to say, the past won’t leave the poor renegade alone.

The 52-year-old Arthur plays Ladd’s romantic interest (he was 12 years younger than she), but their romance, of course, can’t be consummated. No, age has nothing to do with it. In fact, most of Arthur’s leading men were younger than she was. The problem in Shane is that Arthur is married to dull settler Van Heflin, and is the mother of a precocious kid played with wide-eyed earnestness by Brandon De Wilde.

Compounding matters, meanie Jack Palance – black hat and all – decides to wreak havoc on the town. As a result, young and adult hearts are torn to pieces, while big and small guns explode like cannon artillery fire.

Captured by Loyal Griggs’ evocative lenses and played out to the tune of Victor Young’s melancholy music, Shane – even if a tad overlong and heavy-handed – is one of the two or three best Westerns ever made. (With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood attempted a similar romanticized/demythologizing approach to the Old West, but Shane remains the movie Western paradox.)

Unfortunately, after the filming of Shane was completed neither Brandon De Wilde nor anyone else came running after Jean Arthur yelling for her to come back, please, come back. Shane, though a mammoth box office hit, turned out to be her last film.

In the ensuing decades, she taught drama at Vassar, acted in a few plays, and in the mid-1960s starred briefly in The Jean Arthur Show on television.

Jean ArthurThe reclusive actress – in life, as in her movies, a staunch progressive and a free-thinking individual – spent the last years of her life in the Carmel area along the Central California coast. Following a stroke that left her severely impaired both physically and mentally, she died at age 90 in 1991.

As quoted in John Oller’s biography, after her death film reviewer Charles Champlin wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times:

“To at least one teenager in a small town (though I’m sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be – ought to be – judged by her spirit as well as her beauty. … The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.”

Jean Arthur on Turner Classic Movies

Schedule: EST

Jan. 9

8:00 PM Silver Horde, The (1930)
An Alaskan fisherman is dogged by a ruthless competitor and an ambitious dance hall girl. Cast: Joel McCrea, Evelyn Brent, Jean Arthur. Director: George Archainbaud. Black and white. 75 min.

9:30 PM Adventure in Manhattan (1936)
A hotshot reporter and a temperamental actress clash when he investigates the backer of her latest show. Cast: Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Reginald Owen. Director: Edward Ludwig. Black and white. 73 min.

11:00 PM More the Merrier, The (1943)
The World War II housing shortage brings three people together for an unlikely romance. Cast: Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn. Director: George Stevens. Black and white. 104min.


Jan. 16

8:00 PM Ex-Mrs. Bradford, The (1936)
A detective teams with his ex-wife to solve a murder. Cast: William Powell, Jean Arthur, James Gleason. Director: Stephen Roberts. Black and white. 82min.

9:30 PM If You Could Only Cook (1935)
An unhappy executive gets a job as a butler on a lark, only to fall for the family cook. Cast: Herbert Marshall, Jean Arthur, Leo Carillo. Director: William A. Seiter. Color. 75mins.11:00 PM More Than a Secretary (1936)
A secretary gets the glamour treatment to win her boss’ heart. Cast: Jean Arthur, George Brent, Lionel Stander. Director: Alfred E. Green. Black and white. 80min.

12:30 AM Too Many Husbands (right, 1940)
During World War II, a British platoon goes behind enemy lines in the Pacific. Cast: Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas. Director: Wesley Ruggles. Color. 84 mins


Jan. 23

8:00 PM Danger Lights (1931)
A family railroad is threatened when the owner’s girl falls for a conductor. Cast: Louis Wolheim, Robert Armstrong, Jean Arthur. Director: George B. Seitz. Black and white. 74min.

9:30 PM Public Hero No. 1 (1935)
An undercover G-man helps with a jailbreak to learn the mob’s secrets. Cast: Chester Morris, Jean Arthur, Joseph Calleia. Director: J. Walter Ruben. Black and white. 90min.

11:15 PM Party Wire (1935)
When a small-town girl’s boyfriend leaves in disgrace, gossips spread false reports of her pregnancy. Cast: Jean Arthur, Victor Jory, Charley Grapewin. Director: Mark Robson. Color. 70 mins


Jan. 30

8:00 PM Arizona (right, 1940)
A tough pioneer woman needs a young man’s help in fighting land grabbers and finding love. Cast: William Holden, Jean Arthur, Warren William. Director: Wesley Ruggles. Black and white. 121min.

10:15 PM Shane (1953)
A mysterious drifter helps farmers fight off a vicious gunman. Cast: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde. Director: George Stevens. Color. 118min.

12:30 AM Impatient Years, The (1944)
A feuding couple re-creates their courtship in hopes of falling back in love. Cast: Jean Arthur, Lee Bowman, Charles Coburn. Director: Irving Cummings. Color. 91 mins

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Daniel Stein -

Andre, this comes fifteen years after your article was written. Also a loyal and loving fan of Jean Arthur, non-pareil, even among her screwball comrades. Stanwyck and Bergman are the 2 actresses who long ago made claim to my heart, but jean Arthur is the only one ever I would have loved to spend time with. That said, it was a pleasure reading your words, especially the fact that I agreed with all you had to say. I, too, although I like James Stewart well enough, in more recent years I”ve come to see more of the mean streak he has in many of his movies. His insulting barrage of venom directed against Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World, an otherwise entertaining movie, as an example; why Vertigo is so high on everybody’s list of the best is beyond me. In both Harvey and Anatomy of a Murder, where he was not partnered with anyone, he does come off best. I saw Jean in Easy Living (partnered well with Ray Milland) recently, maybe for the 4th or 5th time, and, as with all of her films upon viewing and re-viewing, some multiple times, I come away having falling in love all over again with the the perfectly inimitable delicacy that is Jean Arthur.

Gerry George (Actor/Director/Journalist) -

This incisive and well-informed piece about Jean Arthur, does justice to the wonderful movie-actress that she indeed, happened to be. I’m surprised that the author makes no reference to the 1941-movie *The Devil and Miss Jones*, starring – once again – her ideal screen-match, Charles Coburn, with able-support from masterful actor, Edmund Gwenn and utterly adorable Spring Byington. As a nearly 83-year-old, sycophantic 1930s-40s Hollywood Movie addict, I only came across this magnificent Jean Arthur jewel last week – on the *free-viewing* Russian movie-bonanza site, when this acetate *parable* lifted me to the heights. Indeed, I was so fascinated with the cleverly-contrived screenplay – not to mention the acting aplomb, as displayed by both principals; and not-least a superb cast of veteran actors – that I have since watched the movie six-times-over, and yet still want to watch it, again-and-again ! That said, I’ve watched this wonderful lady in a whole raft of other movies, including her lead-appearances, with William Powell, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant – and the rest – but, if you ask me, *The Devil and Miss Jones* is the best of the bunch ! Gerry George.

Patricia Charboneau -

I thoroughly enjoyed More the Merrier and Talk of the Town. I do disagree with assessment of reviewer that she showed her progressive proclivities in her movies. In some ways I felt she showed the her tentative and uncertain side to the men in the aforementioned titles. Why not wash those men out of her hair, they were obviously a pain in her life!

tom manning -

What a cute dish Jean Arthur was, and what a sharp intellect she had. Her role in 1943’s “The More the Merrier” with Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn is not to be missed. Her lines and their quips come with a well-honed sublety that many big names never seemed to match in their acting. (That one earned her a Best Actress nomination.) She truly was one of the greats of Hollywood’s golden age.

r. hibbs -

i dont think shane was a good movie for her, but not her fault,i always saw her as a city gal.

r. hibbs -

i was in love w/her when i was a little boy and watched reruns of the late,late show on t.v.
i always wished i could find a girlfriend that had a voice like hers.

Doug MacMartin -

I am an avid older movie buff and have enjoyed everything that Jean Arthur was in, especially Foreign Affair and The More the Merrier. I have seen Shane many times and I loved the movie, but frankly felt that Jean Arthur was a weak point in the movie, and it was maybe not her fault. I have lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and know much about its history. The part that Jean played was of a lady that never got dirty and never had a hair out of place and her make-up was always perfect (it appeared that they maybe put a soft lens on her) was way too much of a contrast with her hard working, dirty sod buster of a husband. There was not one woman in the beginning days of Jackson Hole that appeared to just come out of a beauty salon like her character often did and there was not another woman in the movie that even looked like she did and it was just an unbelievable character. The strong points in Shane in my opinion were the beautiful scenery and the character development of the contrast between the sod busters and the cattlemen. As you said we all have our a right to our opinion, but your piece sounded much more like a tribute to her rather than an objective critque of her career, as the only thing that you didn’t do was put the crown on her head. There truly was not one negative thing that you said about her. Even her weakness of her being shy was handled as if it were a strength, and the issue with Jimmy Stewart was cast as solely his vault and that Jean Arthur had no hand in the issues with Jimmy Stewart. The only thing that I have read Jimmy Stewart said about Jean Arthur was despite their differences, she was the best actress he ever worked with, this doesn’t sound like a snake to me, but a gentleman. I feel that much of the issues might have to do with difference in political beliefs and how that colours peoples viewpoints, and that truly should have not have any place here. Even Henry Fonda who differed greatly with Jimmy Stewart politically, greatly respected Jimmy. Jean Arthur was a wonderful actress and has left a remarkable legacy in the body of work that she did on the screen. First and foremost she was a human being with weakeness and strengths and from some of the comments certainly had some deep seeded animosity toward some people, everyone does but to her credit it never came across in her performances, and she was a true artist.

Andre -

Thanks for sharing your views.

That Jean Arthur piece came out as a “tribute” because she is, after all, one of my very favorite performers — and the piece, of course, wasn’t a full-fledged biography. Also, as far as I’m concerned, her shyness as a person was a strength, not a weakness, and in fact I think it makes her characters seem more grounded. Arthur was never a ham. (Though pre-1934 she could be — and from what I’ve read and seen usually was — a stiff actress. I mention that in the article.)

As for James Stewart, my perception of his acting skills has nothing to do with his political views. Irene Dunne was quite conservative when it came to politics and that doesn’t stop me from finding her one of the best film actresses ever.

I’ve just never found the Stewart-Arthur pairings very believable. To me, they always seemed mismatched irrespective of their off-screen worldviews.

Alan Wogberg -

“Stewart — seemingly most everyone’s idea of the perfect all-American Average Man — is my idea of the perfectly phony All-Hollywood Actor.”

In this society ,everyone has the democratic right to be wrong…phony observation…

Andre -

Actually, no.
I was simply pointing out that my views re: James Stewart are different than most people’s.
See, everyone has the right to have different likes and dislikes.
Myself included.

Andre -


First of all, thank you for writing. And I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

Now, James Stewart. I’ve liked him twice: “Harvey” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” In both films he was cast against type, and I found him effective — though that’s most likely because I saw (creepy) elements in his performances that most people didn’t see. (Certainly, the creepiness could have been in my own imagination — but it worked!)

As for Frank Capra, I’ve never found him naive, even if his movies come across that way. My problem with Capra’s touch is that to me it often felt calculated, ungenuine.

I’d suggest a look at Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra biography, which I’m currently reading. The man described in that book is quite unlike the kind-hearted, naive heroes played by Gary Coooper or James Stewart.

Thanks again for writing, and my apologies for taking so long to respond.

James D. Haeberle -

Your article on Jean Arthur is wonderful. I’ve loved her in everything I’ve seen her in. I must take issue gently with you about Jimmy Stewart. I’m one of his millions of devoted fans.

Jean Arthur’s greatest strength as an actress was her adorable voice. Her wheedling and pleading at Shane and her husband when they are fighting over who gets to be killed by Wilson (Jack Palance) was utterly real, just how one would expect a farm wife to sound under the circumstances.

Good people bring good into the world. You may bridle at Mr. Capra’s naivte’, but I loved the world he created. He made us want to be better people. Any director can show the world as it is. It takes a special person like Frank Capra to show things and people at their best. This inspires and encourages us to improve ourselves and the world around us.

Howard Partch -

Jean Arthur
King Arthur
Play Arthur
why not?

Jean Arthur
King Arthur
An actress
By God.

Jean Arthur
King Arthur
I’ve seen her
at her best.

Jean Arthur
King Arthur
She remains Queen
Even at rest.

By Howard Partch

Abby -

Great Article. :)


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